Florida lawmakers are trying to scuttle the conservation amendment passed by voters in 2014


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The House, Senate and two state agencies asked the Florida Supreme Court this week to reject an appeal in a fight about how lawmakers carried out a 2014 constitutional amendment aimed at boosting land and water conservation.

Attorneys for the Legislature, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services filed briefs Monday asking justices to decline to take up an appeal filed by Florida Defenders of the Environment and other plaintiffs.

The environmentalists took the case to the Supreme Court after the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with lawmakers in September.

The voter-approved constitutional amendment required setting aside a portion of real-estate documentary stamp tax revenues in what is known as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for conservation efforts. Environmentalists contend the tax dollars were supposed to go to buying and managing additional property and that lawmakers improperly diverted money to other expenses.

But in a 15-page brief filed late Monday at the Supreme Court, attorneys for the House and Senate disputed the environmentalists’ interpretation of the amendment and said the 1st District Court of Appeal had ruled correctly. A key issue has centered on whether the money should only go toward land purchased after the amendment took effect in 2015.

“Nothing in the text (of the amendment) supports the FDE’s (Florida Defenders of the Environment’s) contention that restoration, management, and other non-acquisition activities authorized by (the constitutional amendment) are limited to land owned by the state and acquired since July 1, 2015,” the House and Senate attorneys wrote. “The resources of the parties and of the (Supreme) Court need not be exhausted on further review of a contention that is scarcely colorable.”

In a brief filed last month, however, Joseph Little, an attorney for Florida Defenders of the Environment, argued that the appeals court’s interpretation “defeats the intent of the Florida voters who approved the amendment for inclusion in the Florida Constitution.”

“FDE submits that the only authorized purposes are to acquire new conservation and recreation lands and to restore and manage lands so-acquired,” Little wrote. “In contrast, the state submits that its use of the LATF (Land Acquisition Trust Fund) monies is not so limited and that (the constitutional amendment) authorizes it to expend LATF funds to manage conservation lands whenever acquired, wherever located and by whomever owned, including private persons.”

Attorneys for the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services disputed the environmentalists’ interpretation of the amendment as the agencies argued the Supreme Court should not take up the case.

“The petitioners (environmentalists) argue that the court should accept jurisdiction, not because of any substantial argument that the First District misread the text of the amendment, but because a reversal of that opinion would promote their policy preferences,” attorneys for the agencies wrote in a joint brief Monday.

The state went to the 1st District Court of Appeal after Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson last year agreed with environmentalists and found that dozens of legislative budget appropriations were unconstitutional. The Tallahassee-based appeals court overturned Dodson’s ruling, prompting the environmentalists to argue that the Supreme Court needs to resolve the meaning of the constitutional amendment.

“In short, the district court's decision places no restrictions on the state's power to expend LATF funds virtually as it pleases and does not require it to acquire and restore any new conservation lands,” Little wrote. “FDE respectfully submits that this decision requires clarification by this (Supreme) Court not only for this case but for all other voter-initiated amendments to the Florida Constitution.”

Attorneys for the House and Senate, however, wrote in their brief that the appeals-court decision was “narrow and plainly correct.” The state argues the dispute should be sent back to circuit court for further proceedings.

“The limitation (on spending) sought by the FDE has no footing in the constitutional text – no matter what the FDE thinks ‘many people thought.’ The FDE cites no constitutional provision that supports its interpretation,” the Legislature’s brief said.

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